Early in my first year as principal I found myself sitting across the table from a clean-cut, successful looking lawyer/parent who had put his daughter into the second grade of my school a month ago. As soon as we returned from the buffet at his downtown Kansas City club with plates full of samplings from the cornucopia of the affluent, he got right to the point:
“There is a boy in my daughter’s class who is using bad language and bullying kids. Yesterday, he destroyed Laura’s art project. She says his name is Richard. I don’t know who he is, and I am sure you have to look after all of the students, and that he has his own educational needs which you have to worry about, but I want you to know that I will not tolerate it.” Or at least that is the gist of what he took twenty minutes to say. He was quite clear.
I didn’t have much to say. I was 29 and completely new to the role of principal of a school. I simply said, “I will take care of it,” without knowing how, and with no conviction that I actually could.
Of course, I didn’t really need his pressure; I was under enough already. Richard’s behavior was quite unacceptable. Indeed, the teacher, Joan, and I had been working on it for a month. We had tried various interventions and punishments, and had already had several conversations with his parents, but the harassment continued.
One Tuesday afternoon at 4:00pm, mother, father, Joan and I sat in my office to try to come up with a plan to turn his behavior around. But at the end of an hour we had come up with nothing. Then, for some reason, Joan said, “You know, it’s important for me to say that Richard is not in academic difficulty. In fact, he was doing quite well. His academic skills are strong. He is a good learner, and catches on really fast.”
Both parents smiled, and the father visibly relaxed. He began talking about his experience in school and confessed that he had flunked out of second grade. Then he said, “I am so glad to be hearing this. I have been so afraid that Richard would get kicked out, just as I was.”
We talked for another hour, continuing our effort to design a plan that would change Richard’s behavior. We came up with a simple plan of consequences and agreed to be in communication, but neither Joan nor I had much confidence that the plan would work. The meeting ended at six o’clock.
In fact the plan didn’t work. We never even had to use it. The next day, there were no incidents. None the next, or the next, and the week ended with no more trips to the principal’s office. In fact there were no other such incidents for the rest of the year, and Richard graduated seven years later in good standing.
Something almost mystical had happened. I write these articles every week to try to “make sense of it all.” But it often seems “to make no sense at all.” I try to do good, but often frustrate my own efforts. I try at least to do no harm, but it seems I do harm anyway. But is it hopeless? Apparently not.
In the 40 years since, I have experienced this mysterious phenomenon so often that I have come to trust it. I have seen a genus in each of us help us transcend our fears and do good things in spite of ourselves. I have come to act as if each of us does, actually, have a genius. But this story also shows that our geniuses are in league with each other. It seems our collective genius has the power to fix intransigent problems.
My genius made me forget about Laura, her classmates and her father and focus on Richard. Joan’s genius reminded her to focus on the WHOLE Richard, not just the bad behavior; this created the space for the father’s genius to own up to his fears.
We don’t know what happened at home, but it seems Richard sensed that he was safe now that his parents were part of a collective who cared about him. His fears subsided allowing his own genius to flourish. At least that’s my theory, and I am sticking to it. Yes, Virginia, there is a collective genius.
Correction: It’s not a theory. I am simply reporting that acting as if I have a genius, and that others have a genius and that they are all in cahoots seems to unlock human potential.